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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences May Be Linked to Stress in Adulthood

Health problems and negative emotions may also be linked to childhood adversity.

Key points

  • New research suggests that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are linked to stress, physical health problems, and negative emotions in adulthood.
  • ACEs have also been linked to depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.
  • These connections highlight the importance of identifying effective interventions and coping skills to help people heal from childhood adversity.
Source: Abbat/Pexels

A new study in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders reveals that adverse childhood experiences are strongly linked to increased adult stress, physical health problems, and negative feeling states as adults. In the current study by Mosley-Johnson and colleagues, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were defined as childhood experiences including emotional and physical abuse, household dysfunction, and financial strain. (Their study did not include sexual abuse and other forms of family dysfunction.)

The Relationship Between Adversity, Stress, and Physical Health

A substantial number of adults were studied: 3,225 adults from the Midlife in the US (MIDUS) group reported their ACE exposure as children from memory, as well as their daily stress levels and physical health symptoms as an adult. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were found to be related to increased numbers of reported stressors and stressor severity, as well as negative affect (negative feeling state) and physical health symptoms.

Having adverse childhood experiences, then, appears to be a factor in the way we perceive and feel stress, placing us more at risk of feeling stressed. In addition, more ACEs unfortunately seem to place us at increased risk for having health problems as adults, when the trauma has not been addressed.

As is common for ACE research, it was a retrospective study for participants—meaning that adults reported their ACEs and childhood trauma from memory. The findings present an important possible component of the adult experience of stress and the potential for internalized stress to morph into physical symptoms when not addressed.

Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Past Research on ACEs

This link between ACEs and adult stress is not new, including ACEs being linked to depression and anxiety and sleep disorders. Certain populations may be particularly vulnerable such as Latina women, minorities, and those living in an urban setting. Also, it may be an extra concern in the current COVID-19 pandemic, and has been found to be linked to long-term physical health problems, including increased blood pressure levels.

Directions for Future Research

Importantly, though, the new study provides evidence that ties together several of these potential worrisome outcomes with adverse childhood experiences in one large-scale study—linking ACEs to not only negative affect, but stress and physical health. The authors conclude by imploring that further research be conducted for those who have experienced significant ACEs to find effective interventions and treatments, as well as improve coping skills and help prevent further physical health problems.

The research continues to evolve in this area. However, be sure to reach out to a trusted loved one or counselor when stress or emotional pain feels overwhelming.

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